Video: Sanctions imposed against Myanmar officials

By Military analyst
updated 10/1/2007 3:29:51 PM ET 2007-10-01T19:29:51

At the end of the week, turmoil in Myanmar became front-page news, with most of the major newspapers carrying the story prominently above the fold. They also printed troubling photographs of panicked demonstrators fleeing soldiers, leaving behind the dead and wounded in the street. By the end of the week, 10 people, including a Japanese journalist, were reported killed.

The deaths came after weeks of demonstrations against the military junta that runs the country. What began as public protests against rising fuel prices morphed into a general demonstration against Myanmar’s government. When scores of revered Buddhist monks joined the demonstrations in the capital, Yangon, and other major cities, opposition to the junta gained some momentum and international attention, and the battle was joined. Soldiers and riot police assembled to quell the demonstrations, and, with the world watching intently, violence ensued.

Media coverage of the trouble in Myanmar has served several purposes, not the least significant of which has been to inform Americans that the country exists. Not long ago, Myanmar was called “Burma,” reflecting the language of the ethnic group that comprises the majority of the people there. Its capital was then called “Rangoon” and, with China and India, was a pivotal arena of combat against the Japanese during the World War II. Since then, not much has been heard about Myanmar, other than the coup that installed the current regime and occasional reports about the incarceration of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The deaths of the people in Myanmar quickly prompted President Bush to order sanctions against 14 junta leaders by freezing their assets in American institutions. Although it’s hard to envision that this punitive action will have much effect, the administration’s decision to act promptly is certainly noteworthy, especially in view of how cautiously the American government seems to approach other, more startling situations abroad.

Take Darfur, for example. The most conservative estimate of the death toll, the State Department’s guess, is that about 70,000 people have been killed. Others have put the number of victims as closer to 250,000. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but whatever the number, it’s a lot more than 10.

Citing this contrast is not to minimize the tragedy in Myanmar. We Americans genuinely and properly despair when we see any people poorly served by their governments, terrorized by those who run their countries, impoverished by oligarchs and despots, denied the common decency all human beings deserve. Originating as we do from a variety of peoples who suffered at the hands of others, and blessed with the good fortune to be in a nation suffused with the sweet aroma of freedom, we have both sympathy and empathy for those in places such as Myanmar who are not as fortunate as we are.

But it’s hard to say why there seems to be so much more interest in Myanmar at the moment than there is in, say, Darfur, where the death toll is at least 6,000 times higher. Of course, there should never be proportionality in outrage because, as it has been observed many times, we are all diminished by any injustice, no matter how large or small. But it may be worthwhile to reflect on our history, which teaches us that large crimes become much more dangerous to our national security than we think, especially when we ignore them.

Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

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